Southern California's best late-summer beaches

A round-up of our 5 favorites
Matthew Jaffe

RINCON, NEAR CARPINTERIA

Cool break

Known as "The Queen of the Coast," Rincon has a right break that produces some of the finest surfing in the world. The surf starts picking up later this month and continues into the winter as west and northwest swells develop, but there's almost always some action to check out, especially at low tide. Good rides can cover a mile and two counties.

INFO: Off U.S. 101 at the Bates Rd. exit, 3 miles south of Carpinteria. The point itself is private above the mean high-tide line; to walk along it, go during low tide and park east of Bates Rd. To access the sandy public beach of Rincon Beach County Park, park to the west of Bates Rd. and take the stairs. Free. www.sbparks.org or 805/568-2461.

NEARBY TREAT: Head up to Carpinteria's Linden Ave. for breakfast or lunch at the local branch of Santa Barbara favorite Esau's ($; 507 Linden Ave.; 805/684-1070). Check out the custom boards and surfwear at Rincon Designs Matt Moore Surfboards (659 Linden; 805/684-2413).

TRESTLES BEACH, SAN CLEMENTE | Top

Trestles trekThe 2 1/2-mile beach hike from San Clemente Municipal Pier south to the surfing shrine Trestles State Beach is both scenic and diverse, with trains zipping along coastal bluffs, dolphins swimming offshore, and the San Onofre nuclear plant eventually coming into view. Low tide offers the best walking.

INFO: From State 1, take Avenida del Mar west to the beach. Free. 949/492-1011.

NEARBY TREAT: Fishermans Restaurant & Bar ($$$; 611 Avenida Victoria; 949/498-6390) serves seafood.

THE TIN FISH, IMPERIAL BEACH | Top

On the pier

Fish tacos, once a cult favorite of surfers and fishermen, may have become ubiquitous, but they still seem to taste better near the water and along the border. The Tin Fish, at the end of the 1,500-foot Imperial Beach Fishing Pier, offers what might be the definitive setting. After munching traditional fried-fish tacos ― other taco choices include calamari, halibut, salmon, shrimp, and swordfish ― take a walk on this popular surfing beach, where the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition is held every July (619/424-6663).

INFO: From I-5, take Palm Ave. west, then turn left on Seacoast Dr.; the beach and pier are at the end of Evergreen Ave. The Tin Fish: $$; 8-8 daily; 619/628-8414. Access to the city's same-named beach is free; www.ib-chamber.com or 619/424-3151.

ROBERT H. MEYER MEMORIAL STATE BEACHES, MALIBU | Top

Quiet coves

This chain of intimate coves ― El Pescador, La Piedra, and El Matador ― in Malibu is better suited for hanging out or picnics on the bluffs than beach walks. You get to the coves by hiking down steep bluffs via pathways or stairs. El Matador has the most dramatic sea stacks, which are havens for cormorants and other seabirds.

INFO: About 12 miles west of Malibu Canyon Rd. on Pacific Coast Hwy. (State 1). $4 per car. www.parks.ca.gov or 818/880-0350.

NEARBY TREAT: For fish and chips or steamed shrimp, drive a few miles to Neptune's Net Seafood ($; 42505 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu; 310/457-3095), a hangout for both bikers and surfers.

BEACON'S BEACH, ENCINITAS | Top

Fun in the surf

Sitting below the Leucadia neighborhood at the base of an unstable bluff, Beacon's Beach is a hideaway that recalls simpler times along the Southern California coast. This beach is full of friendly locals and is popular for both surfing and surf-fishing. Kelp beds and offshore reefs create habitat for a wide range of fish, with surfperch being the most common. Most people cast from shore, but you might also spot a few intrepid souls fishing from surfboards farther out. Bluff and beach erosion has long been a problem here, and a recent sand-replenishment program now makes it easier to explore the roughly 1 1/2-mile stretch south to Stonesteps Beach, especially at low tide. Along the way, it's fascinating to see the measures taken to protect the bluffs.

INFO: From I-5, take Leucadia Blvd. west to its end, then look for the parking lot on Neptune Ave. Or park at Stonesteps Beach off Neptune Ave. at S. El Portal St.; street parking only. Free. www.ci.encinitas.ca.us or 760/633-2740.

NEARBY TREAT: Kealani's ($; closed Sun; 137 W. D St.; 760/942-5642) serves Hawaiian plate lunch. Live music is offered Friday nights.